I Portali: the construction site with smart clothes


Special overalls equipped with airbags – like the ones developed for MotoGP – that improve the safety of construction site workers. Let us explore WorkAir, the “intelligent garments” by the smart company D-Air lab, supplied to the employees at the building site of I Portali, in Melchiorre Gioia street – a project realized by Citterio Viel architecture studio and developed and managed by COIMA -, thanks to a partnership with the construction company ICM. We met Marco Soliman, ICM Sales&Mktg Manager, who told us about this and other implementations of the new lifesaving technology even for ordinary people including runners, cyclists, and the physically impaired. From Antarctica to Japan, a beautiful journey in the world of sustainable and wearable safety.

PN: Tell us about D-Air lab.
MS: Lino Dainese founded the parent company in 1972, consolidating the brand we all know today after decades of research, design, and technological development, which became a leader and an example of Italian excellence in the world of technical/protection equipment for motorcyclists and skiers. After a myriad of podiums notched in a very competitive and constantly evolving market, the entrepreneur sold the majority shares of the company, but put aside a certain sum to respond to one question: why dedicating this enormous background of technological innovation merely to the safety of bikers and downhill skiers? As a visionary and dreamer with special consideration for social mechanisms and the quality of life of people, he preserved ownership of past and future patents, creating a new business: D-Air lab, a creative lab to develop and manufacture new intelligent garments. One of the first projects I remember is WorkAir, a wearable airbag for workers at risk, transferred from the ski slopes to the construction sites to protect workers working at a height. We will also shortly launch devices to protect the elderly in case of falls. Then there is the D-One Run line for joggers: a light and ergonomic bib that – in case of sudden illness – calls an ambulance, sends geolocated messages, rings a horn on your smartphone, or turns on a blinking light, making it impossible to not be found. This product is a candidate for the 2022 Compasso d’Oro (“golden compass”, the prime Italian award for industrial design), to prove that we are not only talking about smart clothes but even aesthetically pleasing ones.

PN: Your website shows fashion clothes equipped with airbags at the marvellous Dior fashion show: is this a hint of future implementations or merely a provocation?
MS: We are already experiencing the future in our “high-fashion service at the service of high-tech”: we aim to create wearable protections, and fashion is a vehicle to integrate our innovation into clothes. Stylist Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative leader of the French maison already had in mind the integration of protection systems in garments for “self-confident”, sporty women with a motor biker’s look. She saw our potential and embraced it in an haute couture collection. Most of such products are already marketed.

PN: Have you “explored” any other context?
MS: The Antarctica project concerns intelligent clothes dedicated to workers operating at extremely cold temperatures. They guarantee – on one hand – maximum insulation, and – on the other hand – constant communication of the environmental conditions and the user’s vital signs thanks to “flexible electronics” elements integrated with the garments. This sounds like sci-fi, but it’s all true! Such data recording technology was actually already used in the aerospace context, but we were the first to integrate them into a wearable fabric at an industrial level. Antarctica branched from the non-profit organization Unless, which studies the architecture of Antarctica for exploration purposes, based on all the progress made in terms of protection since the first colonization 200 years ago. In a context that is halfway in between an arctic structure and a space shuttle, it requires accurately designed clothing. Just like spacesuits to work in deep space, arctic suits also need to be designed to envelop the body and guard it against extreme weather through flexible components. The latter include sensors that record both environmental parameters and the user’s vital signs, showing them on external monitors – because in such extreme conditions you always work at least in a pair and constantly supervise each other. The cold also freezes perception and slows down reaction time, preventing us from realizing – for instance – that our face is starting to freeze, simply because we cannot see it and, for some time, we can’t even feel it. 

PN: The implementations to protect the elderly in case of falls are also quite interesting. How are such products working? What are your bestsellers?
MS: We shall launch the Future Age line later this month and already have hundreds of requests. Aging trends, especially in Italy, have been clearly and constantly on the rise in the past few decades: Future Age caters to such a growing population. The device helps such people in case of falls and also reduces healthcare costs. We will immediately launch a very discrete belt integrated with the garment and embedding airbags to protect the hips in case of fall.

PN: On to WorkAir. You talk about “an implementation of the smart clothing technology in the work environment” by Dainese. Is this a transfer from the racing world to the construction site? How does it work?
MS: In terms of basic technology, WorkAir has borrowed the system architecture from the racing world, with accelerometers reading body motion and an algorithm that chooses what to do based on the data recorded. The racetrack has also handed down to us the structural parts of the airbag, connected by patented filaments that allow the inflated device to maintain a stable planar structure, which doesn’t collapse like a float in case of impact. This is all integrated into a light, ventilated work vest that is compatible with the compulsory harness (when working at a 2-plus metre height) that stops freefalling but not the pendulum effect that makes the workers clash against the structure they are working on. WorkAir is certified as protective equipment for falls below a 2-metre (6’6”) height but still protects harnessed operators in collisions above such height.

PN: Must the vests be “updated” and certified regularly as if they were fire extinguishers?
MS: The device is certified as class II PPE. It must be inspected every 3 years by us or our partners.

PN: How was your partnership with the via Melchiorre Gioia 20 construction site born, and what does it entail?
MS: We were contacted by the ICM group for an order of WorkAir vests for the site. As well as being a great project (the east tower will be 24 storeys tall) I Portali  is an extremely useful testing ground for our devices and will let us collect fundamental data on the field. Once we gave the staff the vests, we also trained them directly at the site.

PN: Are there any government incentives to stimulate the purchase of your devices by businesses?
MS: Not yet, but we are working on eventual tax breaks for now. In any case, equipping one’s employees with an innovative and certified device is already attractive for companies.

PN: You have an international user base. Are businesses more aware of personal and occupational safety elsewhere in Europe?
MS: Northern Europe is historically meticulous in terms of safety, but we are recording strong interest in Italy too. There are numerous extremely innovative companies in such field, including Enel which has supported the project from the beginning.

PN: What are your field impressions of WorkAir for now?
MS: Worker feedback is the most useful of all because it is the most honest and provided by daily users of the devices. Some have asked us to make the vests high-visibility, others to apply certain aesthetic changes (we’re all different…). As a strongly customer-centric business focused on product innovation, such requests are worth more than a thousand focus groups and are extremely precious for our improvement.

PN: What might the future implementations of such technology be?
MS: We are aiming at new areas of the body to achieve protection “from head to toe” and the acknowledgment of WorkAir as an essential safety device at construction sites and large warehouses. As far as the product goes, we shall move towards greater integration of technology in the garments to make them increasingly armoured but lighter. Think about medieval knights, who were protected but had burdensome armours causing clumsy movement, while the Japanese realized that a greater exposure of certain areas of the body was compensated by greater agility in avoiding blows, counterattacking, and eventually running away. Was them, perhaps, who invented the first examples of Personal Protective Equipment in history?